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Bibliomaniacs' Corner
by Martin Davies

Gaston Vuillier (Part Two)

Looking from the crest of the Majorcan sierra on a clear day, the spectator sees far to the south-west a small network of dark blue specks breaking the clear turquoise of the sea. They are the Pithyusæ, the least known and most remote of the Balearic group. An old paddle steamer, which makes a service between Palma and Alicante, calls at Iviza on the way, and I decided to avail myself of it to go to these distant and rarely visited islands.

Thus begins the account of Ibiza's first and most underrated travel writer in The Forgotten Isles (1893, English ed. 1896). The early life Gaston Vuillier was the subject of our previous article, so here we will only recap in brief: born to a lowly Perpignan servant-girl surnamed Pont, he was packed off to a mountain village, recalled to attend grammar school in the provincial capital, recognized by his father (who had by then married the said domestic) and swiftly promoted to the upper-bourgeoisie. Sent to Aix-en-Provence to study law, he switched to fine art and completed his studies at the academy in Marseilles. An acquaintance with a maverick politician led to his appointment as an officer at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, followed by six years in the French colonial administration in Algeria. Empire-building was then abandoned for art, and his apprenticeship brought to a conclusion under a leading Parisian landscapist. He began engraving for magazines in the same year (1876), writing short pieces to accompany sketches made in Algeria. His literary overture was a full-length article about Andorra (1888) in Le Tour du Monde, a sort of francophone National Geographic. This career-shift was consolidated by longer pieces on Majorca, Sardinia and Menorca, so that by the time the forty-four year old arrived on Ibiza in the autumn of 1889, he was enjoying the first flush of modest journalistic success.

Mallorca had been a breeze: the island's unspoilt beauty stole his heart and soul and he was to return on several occasions, eventually becoming a rare Hijo Predilecto (Favourite Son). He also made friends with the Archduke Luis Salvador, a foreign savant whose magnificent study of the Pityuses had appeared in print two decades earlier. The generous Austro-Tuscan granted Vuillier permission to use some of his unpublished Ibiza photographs as the basis for engravings to illustrate the forthcoming article. It has been suggested that Vuillier's close relationship with the Balearis major had a bearing on his initial take on the sister island: "I had been warned in Majorca that I should find Iviza a dirty place ... terrible things were intimated about the Pithyusæ." As we saw in the previous instalment, this was par for the course - in fact it rather whetted the appetite of those in search of local colour. It was unfortunate that when Vuillier stepped off the boat the Pityusan capital was also in the throes of a full-scale diphtheria epidemic.

The paddle steamer was to return to Palma in ten days, leaving our investigator just over a week to come to terms with the queen (or Cinderella) of forgotten islands. His methodology of finding experts to brief him on local customs was helped by the simple fact of being French: few of the Anglo-Saxon visitors a generation or so later spoke fluent Spanish (as equally few Spaniards spoke English) and were thus forced to rely largely on personal observation. Added to this was the fact that Vuillier's childhood in deepest Aude allowed him to converse in Catalan, leaving Spanish and French for the refined citizens of the capital. Among his letters of introduction was one to Don Juan Torres y Ribas, a local canon who later became bishop of Minorca. The two met by chance in the Upper Town and the cleric quickly became Vuillier's principal informant and adviser. His first suggestion was to leave Formentera out of the projected itinerary: if the wind should change, he warned Vuillier grimly, he could be stranded there for weeks on end.

The first of Vuillier's two chapters on Ibiza is devoted to the capital - its rudimentary accommodation, its unattractive food and the pervasive stench in the air; the second, which describes visits to San Antonio and Santa Eulalia, focuses on unusual local customs. At all times the author, like a modern-day TV travel journalist, kept his audience in mind: if those discerning Tour du Monde readers were to make a major investment in cash and time, they had to have the bottom line; any glossing over weaker points would have meant a failure of duty. In fact the report Vuillier filed stressed good as well as bad, maintaining a style throughout as elegant as it was drily ironic:

After the customary struggle with rival porters, who each seized upon a separate article, I reached the fonda with my train of bearers, all of whom, especially the man who carried my umbrella, kept mopping their brows to show me how heavy their burdens had been.

Or

The town of Iviza, with seven thousand inhabitants, possesses only one hotel, and even this lacks all comfort, in spite of the sonorous name of the landlord, José Roig y Torres. He was familiarly known as el Cojo (Hoppy), from an infirmity in his gait. I can see the man now, with his enormous head and his ugly eyes blinking under lashes as thick as horsehair, balancing his ungainly body on his deformed legs as he coursed round the table with the gestures of a performing bear, stopping to expectorate at my very feet, and panting like a wild beast, his breath reeking of vile tobacco. And then the dishes of Heaven knows what meat, floating in oily sauce, which he shoved under my nose, saying each time "Now, this, Señor, is simply delicious!"

The charge of second-rate scribbler is thus hardly borne out by Vuillier's prose; to this is added his extremely successful career (almost all his books were translated into several other languages) as well as continuing popularity over time: a whole century later readers from Syracuse to San Antonio - not to mention the length and breadth of France - rarely fail to fall under the Frenchman's spell.

There is, it has to be owned, the odd peccadillo, inevitable in a ten-day field trip with no proper authorities to fall back on in Paris. A tiny error is made about the lookout point in Dalt Vila, the Catalan-Gothic window of Can Comasema is described as 'Moorish' and La Marina (outside the walls) was not built, as he writes, after the French put an end to Algerian piracy (a version which went down a treat on the banks of the Seine). The meat though, the folklore, is highly accurate, even if drama is heightened for literary purposes. After all, that is what a travel writer does for a living, unlike the one-man encyclopaedist, the Archduke Luis Salvador. Here is Vuillier on a long-vanished courting custom:

Some days after my visit to San Antonio, I drove out to the village of Santa Eulalia, where I was again the guest of the parish priest. The peasants had just come out from attending mass, and as I was talking to the clergyman at the door of his house, I was startled by several loud reports. On my asking the priest what the sounds meant, he led me quickly to the foot of a little hill, where I perceived a girl walking slowly home from church. A young man with a musket was hurrying after her, and just as he overtook her he suddenly fired at her very feet, raising a cloud of stones and dust which almost hid her from view. But without so much as the quiver of an eyelash the girl continued to walk serenely on, and the young peasant placing himself by her side, they both continued their road chatting amicably together. This, it appears, is the recognised form of salutation between man and maid throughout the island, and the girls make it a point of honour to betray no emotion at the firing, though they are always taken unawares; for the lovers, wearing light espardenyas, creep up behind them as silently as panthers.

One could quote endlessly from this splendid book, so generously packed with amusing vignettes and ethnographic detail. The accompanying illustrations, exactly where required, elevate the whole to a veritable livre d'artiste. The detail of these engravings (in which Vuillier was assisted by one Charles Brabant) places them alongside the best of surviving photographs, as is confirmed by their repeated appearance in later works - and now websites. But this graphic fame is largely anonymous - or mealy-mouthed. Most Ibicencans have seen the illustration below, but few know the name of the Frenchman responsible, and local commentators inevitably trot out the well-worn cliché about his inability to write. There are twenty-eight illustrations in total, of which seventeen may be examined at http://www.uoc.es/humfil/eivifor/a2_cat/ e1/vuillier.html.

An Ardent Avowal

Vuillier's later career will be the subject of the third (and final) instalment in a fortnight's time. But first, why is it that so many front-rank authors such as Vicente Blasco Ibáñez and Santiago Rusiñol have incurred the indignation, indeed even wrath, of Ibiza's intellectuals? In Vuillier's case, there are at least four factors involved, shared largely by his fellow-scribblers: firstly, he unwittingly offended local sensibilities by stressing the Moorish connection, which ran counter to a persistent desire to be seen as European rather than African or Arabic. In a 1974 article in the journal Eivissa, the local poet Marià Villangómez began by enumerating all the passages in which Vuillier characterises a local feature as 'Arabic' or 'Moorish'. (The artist's six years in Algeria, it may be noted, put him in a far better position to make such comparisons than those who have never set foot in such lands.) Secondly, the Frenchman's fascination with the more violent aspects of local mores was regarded as giving a false impression of what the island was really like. Sophisticated Ibicencans were horrified to see so much space devoted to vanishing customs with which they were barely acquainted - the 'barbarisms' beloved of Palma wits. Thirdly his frank characterization of local food, lodging and sanitation seemed to place in jeopardy the slim hope of diverting a little modest tourism to Ibiza's shores. (The diphtheria outbreak of 1889 may have marked a particular low-point.) Finally, the empirical-scientific approach of the Archduke Luis Salvador became the benchmark against which all subsequent foreign writing on Ibiza was appraised - even novels and travel books. Limited linguistic knowledge has saved almost all Anglo-Saxon travel writers from a similar fate, their accounts never having been subject to the same stern scrutiny by local authors.

Time moves on though. We now know that the Arabic centuries have left their mark (although Vuillier himself stressed the contributions of other cultures, above all in the capital); we feel almost nostalgic about those 'barbaric' customs; gourmet restaurateurs and trained receptionists have swept colourful fondistas into history's out-tray; many fervently wish that Mallorca would keep back a few of those foreign visitors; and finally, there is a realization that a passing travel-writer can hardly be judged as if he were chief editor of the Enciclopèdia d'Eivissa i Formentera. In fact, many of Vuillier's illustrations now grace the pages of that splendid publication, which reached the first part of the letter 'F' in its fifth volume. I would not be surprised if all twenty-eight engravings were eventually included.

I promised a fortnight ago to reveal the true death-day of English literature's most cherished ornament, allegedly shared with Cervantes and Wordsworth (April 23rd). Shakespeare did indeed pass away on April 23rd, but in 1616 this was not the same in England as it was in Spain: the Most Catholic Kingdom had already adopted the Gregorian calendar (introduced by Gregory XIII in 1582), while the Anglicans remained with the Julian (named after Caesar) until right up until 1752. Just to be different. This means that the immortal bard took his final breath (and was probably born too) on what is now 3rd May, ten days after Cervantes and ten days after UNESCO's World Book and Copyright Day.

Time's glory is to calm contending kings,
To unmask falsehood and bring truth to light

Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece (1594)

Could somebody please tell Paris?

Es Joc de Gall (‘The Cock Game", Santa Eulalia)

Martin Davies

martindavies@liveibiza.com

 
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